Sunday, February 28, 2016


If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I don't often read or review bestsellers. If you're a newcomer, take a quick look around the blog and you'll see what I mean. Go ahead. We'll wait.

Oh, sure, I've read my share of bestsellers over the years. And I still occasionally read a book (fiction or non-fiction) that happens to be (or has been) a bestseller. But that's a happy coincidence. I didn't choose and read the book because of it's place on a list. I picked it because it looked like something I was interested in reading.

But as a rule, I don't read many bestsellers. To be honest, many of them just do not appeal to my tastes. Besides, a bestseller list is in no way a measure of quality. It's a tabulation of popularity. Some books that hit the list are extremely well written, while others are, frankly, crap.

I'm not sure where John Grisham falls on that spectrum. I know he's written a lot of books over the past twenty five years, most of which became both bestsellers and popular, successful films. I'm sure some of his books are solid and well crafted. I'm also sure there's probably a clunker or two in there somewhere. But I can't speak for certain because I've never read a John Grisham book. I've just never had an interest in delving into his body of legal thrillers and other types of stories. I dunno, maybe I'm missing something. Maybe there are some good, first rate books of his that I really need to check out. If so, I'd appreciate hearing from my faithful readers as to which, if any, Grisham books you recommend. Who knows, I may eventually get around to reading one or two someday. But until then, there are so many other books I have on my shelves that I really must get around to that Mr. Grisham will have to wait.

And when it comes to film versions of Grisham novels, until yesterday, I'd only ever seen one, THE RAINMAKER (1997), which was directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola. I recall liking the film, but not enough to want to read the book upon which it was based. That's the way I feel about RUNAWAY JURY (2003) which I watched yesterday. It's a good, well-crafted smooth-as-silk cinematic legal thriller but not oh-my-god-this-is-great enough to warrant reading the book.

The story centers around a civil trial in New Orleans in which a major gun manufacturer is being sued for damages by the widow of a man killed in a mass shooting in which the killer used one of the company's guns. Representing the plaintiff is Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) while the lead attorney for the gun makers is one Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison). But the real power behind the defense is legendary jury "fixer" Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), who uses a team of operatives and high tech equipment to surveil all of the potential jurors and make sure they get the people they want on the jury.

But one of the jurors, Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), is a wild card. Nothing is known about his background and we see Nick and his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz) plotting to make sure Nick gets impaneled. He does and as the trial begins, it becomes apparent that Nick and Marlee are up to something. Just what their real agenda is is not revealed until the end of the film but they present themselves to both Rohr and Fitch as being able to swing the jury to deliver the verdict they each want.

For a price.

There are several nifty twists and turns in the fast moving plot before the big surprise ending. Director Gary Fleder keeps things moving swiftly and the on location shooting by cinematographer Robert Elswit adds much to the film. I recognized a couple of "hey! I've been there!" locations including Cafe du Monde and The Court of Two Sisters restaurant. The screenplay is by a committee consisting of Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. That's usually a bad sign, especially when the script is an adaptation of previously exiting material. Not having read the book, I can only judge the screenplay on it's own merits and I found it to be a good one.

But the real pleasure in watching RUNAWAY JURY, is to see two great American actors (and life long friends), act together in a film for the first time in their respective careers. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman are both terrific and their big dramatic showdown scene (which occurs in a courthouse men's room), is well staged and delivered by these two old pros. RUNAWAY JURY is worth watching just to see these guys at work (Hackman makes a great bad guy) while the "what-is-really-going-on?" plot will keep you guessing right up until the end. Recommended.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


Just finished reading THE MARTIAN WAR, Kevin J. Anderson's 2012 science fiction novel. As the title suggests (and as the back cover copy proclaims), herein lies the true story behind the events depicted in H.G. Wells's immortal THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, first published in 1898.

Anderson's tale is a clever one, a mash-up of both real historical figures such as Wells himself, the famed astronomer Percival Lowell and scientist T.H. Huxley. These three are placed alongside a veritable who's who of characters from Wells' novels including Dr. Moreau (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU), Dr. Cavor (THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON),  Dr. Griffin (THE INVISIBLE MAN) and Professor Redwood and Mr. Bensington (FOOD OF THE GODS). And of course, along with these characters are the elements of their various adventures: human/animal hybrids, a spaceship, an invisibility formula and giant farm animals. The only thing missing from this yarn is the Time Traveler from THE TIME MACHINE.

The narrative is divided into two separate strands. In one, Dr. Moreau and Lowell are responsible for creating a signal that brings the first martian craft to earth. They capture the sole survivor of the crashed vessel and transport it to the deserts of Arizona where Lowell is building an observatory. Things go wrong.

Alternating with entries from Moreau's journal which recounts these past events, is the story of Wells, Huxley and Miss Jane Robbins (Wells' girlfriend), and their voyages to the moon and Mars in Dr Cavor's gravity defying space craft. They have wild adventures in both locales and eventually defeat the impending invasion of earth by Mars by use of a method familiar to anyone who has encountered any iteration of WAR OF THE WORLDS.

It's all good, fast paced, pulpy science fiction fun. Anderson keeps things moving at a good clip and you can tell he has a genuine affection for his characters both real and imaginary. You'll come away from this one wanting to read (or re-read) the novels by H.G. Wells that stand as the rock solid foundation of science fiction literature. Thumbs up.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


So I'm watching James Cameron's TRUE LIES (1994) the other day. First time I've seen it since it was released. I remembered some things about it, others I'd completely forgotten. But several things kept going through my mind while I'm watching it.

First, boy that Jamie Lee Curtis is hot. Really hot. Okay, just had to get that out of the way.

Two, Charlton Heston makes one helluva Nick Fury, better than Samuel L. Jackson in my mind (and I like Samuel L. Jackson as Fury). But in only two scenes, the grizzled, eye-patch wearing Heston perfectly plays the head of  Omega Section, a super-secret, high-tech United States spy agency. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what S.H.I.E.L.D. is. Plus, Heston is just the right age to have been a leader of a certain team of howling commandos during WWII. It's too bad he has such limited screen time. In fact, after two scenes, he completely disappears from the film but damned if he's not Nick Fury when he's on screen.

The third is that if some enterprising film producer or movie studio or maybe even James Cameron himself had wanted to make a Doc Savage film in the mid 1990s, the perfect casting choice was right in front of them in the form of the Austrian Oak himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was big. He was ripped. Makeup, lenses and a wig could have given him his signature bronze hued skin, gold flecked eyes and that distinctive widow's peak hairstyle. Something would have had to be done with the accent of course, but what totally sold me on Schwarzenegger as Doc was the way he wore a strategically torn shirt throughout the entire third act of the film. There are scenes where he looked like he just stepped out of James Bama cover painting on a Bantam DOC SAVAGE reprint paperback.

Of course, that movie never happened but it sure would have been fun to see it.

Anyway, back to TRUE LIES, an action-comedy-romance film written, produced and directed by James Cameron. Oh, and it was the first film to feature special effects by Digital Domain, Cameron's sfx company. Talk about auteur. Cameron did everything on this film except handle the craft services and for all I know, he stepped in and made baloney and cheese sandwiches for the cast and crew from time to time.

Thus, Cameron stansd alone to take full credit for the film's successes and full blame for the film's failures because it's big enough (a running time of over two and a half hours) to encompass both. The successes come early. An opening action set piece that's lifted straight out of a Connery Bond film (right down to Arnold ditching a wetsuit to reveal a white dinner jacket underneath). There's a ski/snowmobile chase and the score (by Brad Fiedel) has echoes of Bond movie music.

Before we can adequately catch our breath from this bravura opening, Cameron throws us into another action sequence, this one an extended chase sequence that is marvellously designed and executed. We're thirty minutes into the film and so far, so good.

Schwarzenegger is Harry Tasker, super spy for the Omega Section. His field partner is Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold). They're after a middle eastern terrorist organization named Crimson Jihad. One of their leads is uber sexy femme fatale Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere). But the conceit of this film is that Harry's wife, Helen (Curtis) doesn't know he's a spy. She thinks he's a computer salesman. And that's where the film takes a turn down the rabbit hole.

All of that action, suspense and narrative momentum that Cameron built up in the first act? It's put completely on hold for a long and flabby second act in which Helen is revealed to be having an affair with some one who may himself be a spy. Harry and Albert ditch their hunt for a group of terrorists armed with nuclear warheads to mind fuck poor Helen. They spend government time, money, men and resources to spy on Helen and her "lover" and when the truth is discovered, they subject Helen to a lengthy interrogation session. But wait, it gets worse.

Harry has Helen report to a hotel suite as an undercover operative forced to do the government's bidding. It's all a set up, an excuse for Harry to humiliate and tease his wife (mental abuse anyone?) before finally revealing himself as a spy. It's also an excuse to get Jamie Lee Curtis stripped down to her bra and panties while she dances seductively for the shadowed Harry. And while I'm all in favor of seeing Jamie Lee Curtis in her underwear any day of the week and twice on Sundays, the scene is demeaning, creepy and uncomfortable to watch. And it has nothing to do with that terrorist threat Harry is supposed to be investigating.

Cameron clumsily weaves the two plot threads together as Harry and Helen are abruptly taken prisoners by the terrorist and it's up to both of them to save the day. Which they due in an over-the-top third act set piece that involves a harrier jump jet wreaking havoc on a Miami office building, a special effects sequence that ends with a Schwarzenegger one liner: "you're fired."

TRUE LIES isn't a bad film. The action is well staged and the leads are all good. There's a tense, psychological thriller in the material, a story about a wife finding out the truth about her husband while both fight for their lives and their country. This isn't that movie. It's James Bond light, it's wink-wink, nudge-nudge, it's romantic comedy with lots of things blowing up real good. It's Schwarzenegger as Doc Savage, Charlton Heston as Nick Fury and Jamie Lee Curtis as her own hot self.

Friday, February 12, 2016


Producer, writer and director Mel Brooks never met a film genre he couldn't parody. Beginning with the groundbreaking and, you'll forgive the expression, "trail blazing" BLAZING SADDLES in 1974, Brooks delivered a series of films each aimed at a specific type of movie. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) was a loving and hilarious homage to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, SILENT MOVIE (1976), was, what else, a delightful spoof of silent films (only one word is spoken in the entire film), HIGH ANXIETY (1977) lampoons most of the Alfred Hitchcock filmography while HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) was a send up of various historical epics.

And then there was SPACEBALLS (1987), which riffed on George Lucas's STAR WARS films with potshots at such other durable cinematic science fiction franchises as STAR TREK, ALIEN and PLANET OF THE APES.

The trouble is, subtle is not a word to be found in Mel Brooks's vocabulary. SPACEBALLS is the kind of film where, when someone gives an order to "comb the desert", you just know that the next scene will be of men armed with giant black plastic combs (including one for "Afro" hair styles) literally coming the sands. It's not a question of seeing the gags coming in this film. You see them coming all right. You also see them slow down and signal for a turn. Oh, and that "jamming the radar" bit? It was funnier the first time in AIRPLANE! (1980).

Still, SPACEBALLS does have it's moments. Brooks breaks the fourth wall several times, indulges in a self-referential scene in which all of his previous films just happen to be on hand (on VHS cassette tapes no less!), and he savages the endless stream of tie-in merchandising that every blockbuster film engenders. Ethnic jokes and sight gags abound, along with potty humor and spit takes. Oh, yes, spit takes.

Brooks plays a dual role as President Skroob and "Yogurt", the ancient, wizened alien wise man. Think "Yogurt" is funny? You'll love "Pizza the Hutt". Yeah, it's that sophisticated.

Maybe if I had seen this in the theater with an audience when it first came out I would have laughed more. After all,laughter is contagious. Instead, I watched it on DVD by myself last week and found only chuckled a couple of times. It's nowhere near as funny as either BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (in my mind Brooks' s best films), but you have to give him credit for trying.

If you enjoyed the movie parodies drawn by Mort Drucker in old issues of MAD Magazine, you'll enjoy SPACEBALLS. The gags are hit and miss but they never stop coming.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Just finished reading ASK NOT (2013) by Max Allan Collins this afternoon. Who cares about watching the Super Bowl when you've got a can't-put-it-down thriller like this one in your hands?

ASK NOT is the fifteenth entry in Collins's Nathan Heller series. Heller is a fictional private detective who, over the course of his career (which began in the 1930s), finds himself involved in some of the most famous crimes and unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. Think of the Heller books as The History Channel meets film noir as Collins combines fictional characters with painstaking research to present a fascinating "secret history" of America.

The Heller books began with TRUE DETECTIVE in 1983 and are still going strong (as is Heller). I haven't read all of these books but I have read (and highly recommend) the following: TRUE DETECTIVE (1983), TRUE CRIME (1984), THE MILLION DOLLAR WOUND (1986), BLOOD AND THUNDER (1995), FLYING BLIND (1998), MAJIC MAN (1999), CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (2002) and BYE, BYE BABY (2011).

 As the title and cover art indicate, ASK NOT is about the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. The story begins with a Beatles concert in Chicago which Heller and his teenage son Sam attend. After the show, Nate and Sam are almost run down by a car driven by a vaguely familiar Cuban. Before you know it, Heller is in Dallas investigating a series of mysterious "suicides"of various people with ties to President Lyndon Johnson. It appears that one Mac Wallace is acting as a hit man for LBJ. Wallace (a real character) has a back story that involves a 1950s shooting at Austin's famous Butler Park Pitch and Putt golf course. Heller temporarily puts the kibosh on Wallace (don't worry, we're not done with this psycho) and begins helping his columnist friend (and sometime lover) Flo Kilgore investigate another series of mysterious deaths involving witnesses to the Kennedy assassination. Heller and Flo meet a veritable who's who of Kennedy assassination players from the girls at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club to Ruby himself (in a Dallas jail). When Flo dies under mysterious circumstances, Heller fears he may be another loose end in need of tying off. He journeys to New Orleans, meets uber freak David Ferrie, encounters Wallace again, talks to Louisiana crime kingpin Carlos Marcello and ends with a brief conversation with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

ASK NOT, though a work of fiction, makes a compelling case for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy involving the mob, Cuban exiles, the CIA and a cabal comprised of LBJ and Texas oil men (and their money). It's all extremely plausible and highly entertaining. Even though much of the book is composed of Heller and and Kilgore interviewing various witnesses, Collins keeps things moving at a good clip. Heller, as usual, finds time to bed a lovely stripper (excuse me, exotic dancer) named Jada and also as always, Collins plays close attention to a multitude of period details, all of which give the Heller books a "you-are-there" sense of verisimilitude.

It's fair to say that hundreds of books have been written about the Kennedy assassination in the fifty plus years since the event took place. And it's safe to say that more will certainly be forthcoming. It's a subject that is endlessly fascinating and it's one about which we'll probably never have the definitive once-and-for-all "truth." Even though it's fiction, ASK NOT, is worthy to stand on the shelf alongside the best of the Kennedy assassination books.

Highly recommended.